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Prometheus - Poem of Fire Op.60

Scriabin: Prometheus – the Poem of Fire

Scriabin composed his ‘Prometheus - the Poem of Fire’ in 1910. It was an unprecedented kind of novelty, both in its experimental sonorities and in its theatrical instructions for performance.

The composer envisaged an atmospheric depiction of the Greek legend of Prometheus. Prometheus was a half-god / half-man, who made mankind out of clay, taught them the fine arts, and stole fire for them from heaven. To punish Prometheus for this, the God Zeus chained him to a rock in the Caucasus, where a vulture pecked at his liver each day. Only at night was his liver restored.

It was the conflict between body and soul in Prometheus that inspired Scriabin to compose his ‘Poem of Fire’, in which the spirits and powers of light and fire associated with Prometheus are brought to life by a huge orchestra, solo piano, chorus and a complex web of stage lighting that changes in colour and intensity to suit the various elements of the story. For Scriabin this was not just intended as a musical experience. As a theosophist, that is a follower of a philosophy professing to attain divine knowledge through spiritual ecstacy, he believed his ‘Prometheus’ would in reality incarnate the spiritual presence of light and fire invoked by the half-god, half-man Prometheus, who, according to the Greek legend, stole sparks from the gods’ chariot wheels and transformed them into fire for man on earth.

Since his young years Scriabin had been strongly affected by the relationship of light and fire to the rebels Satan, Lucifer and Prometheus, all outcasts from heaven, and he had become obsessed by sensations of musical tonalities that conjured up to him visual colours depicting various elements of their characters. In ‘Prometheus’ he brought these visions to their climax in a large scale panoramic presentation of twelve elements associated with Prometheus, with each element evoked by a specific key and accompanied by a specific colour effect expressing each one’s characteristic. The elements are:

Contemplation - Creativity - The Movement of Spirit into Matter - Lust or Passion - Creative Play - Moonshine or Frost - The Diversification of Will - Joy - The Human Will - The Will of the Creative Spirit - Humanity - Matter.

The work opens with a shimmering carpet of sound representing Chaos before creation. The horns then indicate the beginning of life, the ‘Creative Principle’, establishing a marriage of harmony and melody. Trumpets announce the moment when Prometheus was given fire. As the fire ignites a solo trumpet proclaims the theme of Will. The music then describes the descent of spirit into matter and the flight of the soul into spirit. The introduction ends with a short run of notes signifying suffering.

Now the main section of the work begins with what Scriabin called ‘Contemplation’ and ‘The Dawn of Human Consciousness’. At the entry of the piano, the God/Man Prometheus begins to exert his dominance and, as the full range of Scriabin’s enormous orchestra is deployed, the work begins its main journey evoking Prometheus’s feelings of power, eroticism, passion and fear, as he fights his conflicts between being a god and a man. Scriabin indicates the route of this journey through the Cosmos as all Prometheus’s fifteen character elements come and go. Man triumphs over himself and God. As the orchestration, rhythms and colours become increasingly animated and intense, the flames of fire become greater, brighter and fiercer. Near the end the chorus enters, humming without words, signifying that Man has become Mankind. Then the Cosmic Dance of Atoms begins and the thematic structure splits into pieces. The world disintegrates into Nirvana’s cosmic dust, and Man’s disembodied spirit is sent back into the universe, blown by solar storms into the eternal. Suddenly, with a sustained chord at full force from the entire orchestra and chorus, Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus’ ends with the final transfer of everything back into space.

Scriabin’s orchestration is extremely and indeed unusually large consisting of a full strength of strings, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contra bassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, tubular bells (handled by six percussionists), celeste, two harps, piano, organ, and chorus.

For the lighting effects Scriabin included a part for an instrument he himself dreamed up, a ‘clavier a luce’, literally a keyboard of lights. It is given detailed musical notation in two sections. The bottom section is a bass line producing general atmospheric colours around the whole hall, and as the colours change they denote Scriabin’s ‘race changes’ - the mental transformations the audience experiences as the music progresses. The top section activates more ephemerally changing spots of colour aligning the colours and keys of Prometheus’s character elements. The composer notated these as follows:

C flat and B (enharmonic*) - Blue, or Pearly Blue - Contemplation

G flat and F sharp (enharmonic*) - Bright Blue, or Violet - Creativity

D flat and C sharp (enharmonic*) - Violet, or Purple - Will of the Creative Spirit

A flat - Violet or Lilac - Movement of Spirit into Matter

E flat - Flesh (Glint of Steel) - Humanity

B flat – Rose or Steel - Lust or Passion

F - Deep Red - Diversification of Will

C - Red (Intense) - the Human Will

G - Orange - Creative Play

D - Yellow - Joy

A - Green - Matter

E - Sky Blue - Moonshine or Frost

* enharmonic: the same note, but relating to different keys

ŠJon Tolansky

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